“What exactly do you do?” “Oh, I travel… a sort of licensed researcher.”
I love this (mis)quote. In part because it implies I am similar to James Bond (bonus points if you know which film), and in other parts because it is very true to life: this is as far as this conversation usually goes. If someone asks me what exactly I do, they do not want to hear the exact nature of my research protocol. They do not want to know the specifics of the theory behind my work. They do not even want to hear which exact college I go to. Bond responded aptly: people want a 2 second sound bite, so we can move on and talk about the sexy, inexact side of my work—the exotic locations, the near misses with wildlife, the bumping-off bad guys. But, since you are here—and unlikely to be a Bond girl– I’m going to take the rare opportunity to tell you what exactly I do.
At its core, my job revolves around a question: how can people reduce the amount of their livestock that is killed by large predators? I’m a PhD student at the Wildlife Conservation Research Unit, which means for the next few years 100% of my attention should be devoted to finding some kind of answer to that particular question. Of course, we all know that won’t be the case: I need to bring in funding, I need to manage staff, I need to jump through bureaucratic hoops – and I need to keep some hold on reality and pretend I have a work-life balance. This blog is going to chart my progress as I attempt to do all these things and get at least 6 hours of sleep a night. Please get in touch via any of the various channels listed on the page if you want to find out more (particularly if you are considering sponsoring any of my work!).
So how can people reduce the amount of their livestock that is killed by predators? To answer this question, we have to narrow it down.
First: geographically. The world is a big place, and conflict between predators and livestock owners occurs virtually everywhere where people and predators share desk space. Personally, my interests lie in sub-Saharan Africa; I was raised on a diet of Big Cat Diary and the Life of Mammals, and over the past decade have been acquiring a network of family and friends in East and Southern Africa. It seemed like the most logical place to go.Second: what do I mean by ‘predators’? Of course, everything from a dragonfly to a saltwater crocodile can legitimately be called a predator. But that’s not really what I mean; I like fluffy things with big teeth and claws. So when I say predator, I generally mean mammals. But even then, the term still covers all manner of sins, from things like jackals and black-footed cats up to lions. Although small carnivores dopredate livestock—particularly poultry – the focus of my work is mostly on the really big things, with the really big teeth. So lions, leopards, and hyaena, with a smattering of wild dogs and cheetah thrown in for good measure.
So the question becomes “how can people in sub-Saharan Africa reduce livestock losses to large-bodied mammalian predators?”, which is still a pretty hefty topic. Am I working on fence design, maybe? How about livestock breeds? Or management behaviour? The short answer is ‘yes’; the slightly longer answer is that I’m trying to include everything that’s relevant. But mostly, I’m focussing on livestock management practices, and how they can be tweaked to reduce losses. So the really long version of my question, then, is something like “how can people in sub-Saharan Africa modify their livestock management practices to minimise livestock losses to large-bodied mammalian predators?”. I’ve got about 3 years to find some kind of answer; start the clock.
Since February, I’ve been in Kenya. First in Shompole, in the South Rift, and now in Amboseli, slightly further to the East. Over the coming months (and years) I will be moving around, first within Kenya, then Tanzania, Botswana and Zimbabwe, to gather data that I hope will answer my question. Although I’ll be integrating lots of different sources of data, my core work centres on structured interviews with livestock owners Drawing on key themes from behaviour change and industrial psychology, I’ve developed a 45-minute survey that taps into the issues I’m most interested in. On each site, this same survey tool (translated into the local language) will be used, meaning I can directly compare livestock management strategies and attitudes between different sites. Over the course of the 3 years, I hope to build a comprehensive picture of what decisions livestock managers are making, why they make them, and how they can be encouraged to implement more effective livestock management practices. This blog is going to document my successes, failures, and any exciting ways I find to distract myself… Wish me luck!